Sara Teristi was with her son and his friend in their backyard in North Carolina when she got a text from her attorney. “Holy fuck, John just shot himself,” she screamed. Teristi dropped her phone and ran into her house. She can’t remember if her husband was with her: “It’s a bit of a blur after that.”
John Geddert, the former USA Gymnastics coach, was found dead in February just hours after he had been charged with 24 felonies including human trafficking and sexual assault in relation to his decades of work with young gymnasts in his home state of Michigan. Teristi, 46, says she was 10 years old when Geddert’s coaching style became verbally and physically abusive. She says she was 14 years old when Geddert started sitting in on training sessions with sports medicine physician Larry Nassar, Geddert’s close friend and a serial sexual predator, as Nassar repeatedly sexually abused Teristi.
Abby Mealy, 24, had just finished walking her dog when she got a call from the Michigan attorney general’s office telling her Geddert had been found dead. Minutes later, Mealy looked up at her TV screen and saw Geddert’s face; the news of his suicide had just broken.
“I remember standing in my living room just staring at the TV,” she said. “My body shook with emotions that I couldn’t even begin to understand or process in the moment.”
Mealy and Teristi are both involved in Geddert’s criminal case and are survivors of Nassar’s abuse as well. Mealy says Geddert sexually assaulted her in a locker room at a gymnastics meet when she was 14 years old in 2012, the same year he coached at the London Olympics. “This wouldn’t be happening if you just completed my assignment at practice like you were supposed to the day before,” Geddert angrily whispered to Mealy as he sexually assaulted her, according to charging documents.
“John taking his own life robs us of closure,” Mealy said. “But what scares me the most is not so much what I didn’t get because he chose suicide — it’s that we lost any kind of accountability for the many individuals and organizations that sat back and allowed this to happen.”
This sense of disappointment has become a common theme for the 500-plus women who were sexually abused by Nassar, a large portion of whom were also physically and verbally abused by Geddert as gymnasts. It’s been one insult after the other since Nassar was sentenced to life in prison in 2018 — and Geddert’s suicide was just another drop in the bucket.
What scares me the most is not so much what I didn’t get because he chose suicide — it’s that we lost any kind of accountability for the many individuals and organizations that sat back and allowed this to happen. Abby Mealy, charge victim in the John Geddert criminal case
Nassar may not be making national headlines since his sentencing hearing three years ago, but the women he abused have been fighting every day since for accountability from the systems that allowed his abuse to flourish.
Most of these survivors have one straightforward demand: a complete and objective accounting of how Nassar was allowed to abuse children for nearly 40 years. Who knew about the abuse and did nothing? Why were there no safeguards in place to prevent this from happening? An independent, transparent investigation that answers these questions can ensure that a predator like Nassar will never again go undetected in the sport of gymnastics or at a college like Michigan State University. And yet, at every turn survivors have been met with institutional apathy, continued betrayal and negligence — a press statement with flowery sentences about change followed by little to no action.
“What we want is really simple: the truth. We want to know how this happened,” said Sarah Klein, one of Nassar’s first-known victims, who was abused when she was 8 years old in 1988. “Why can’t we get that? The amount of effort from these organizations to continue to hide the truth is mind-blowing.”
Many survivors of Nassar hoped that the felony charges against Geddert would bring public awareness back to the case. If Geddert was found guilty, victims likely would have been given the opportunity to read impact statements similar to those in Nassar’s case. Public outrage likely would have put more pressure on institutions like USA Gymnastics to truly investigate how this happened. But Geddert’s criminal case died when he did. Hundreds of women were robbed of closure the moment he decided to kill himself.
But just because Nassar is behind bars and Geddert is dead doesn’t mean the people and systems around them shouldn’t be held accountable for being complicit in decades of abuse, several survivors tell HuffPost. The institutions where Nassar and Geddert worked — USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee — have done very little, in many survivors’ minds, to reconcile what happened in their own backyards.
“The reality is that while Nassar is in prison, the people who enabled him, who created a horribly abusive system, who were themselves horrible abusers — John Geddert being at the top of that list — are still out there,” said Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse in 2016. Nassar sexually abused Denhollander under the guise of medical treatment in 2000, when she was 15 years old. “There is still a lot of failure to reckon with those realities.”
Institutional Failure At Every Step
Years after Nassar was sentenced to prison, many survivors said that the institutions involved in the scandal have offered little acknowledgment of their role in the abuse. There have been monetary civil settlements at Michigan State, leadership changes at USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, but still no one has been able to tell them how this abuse happened. As survivors told HuffPost, changing leadership is a start, but abuse like Nassar’s and Geddert’s is deeply rooted in the DNA of these institutions. Monetary settlements and leadership changes won’t fix a systemic issue.
Michigan State, where Nassar worked as a team physician, agreed to pay $500 million in 2018 to settle lawsuits brought by 332 Nassar survivors. The U.S. Department of Education fined the university $4.5 million in 2019 for failing to respond to the complaints about Nassar’s conduct. Several MSU employees resigned in the wake of the scandal over allegations that they did not elevate the Nassar complaints properly. MSU’s former president Lou Anna Simon, Nassar’s old boss William Strampel and the university’s head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages have all been charged with crimes relating to Nassar. Only two served jail time. Simon was allowed to retire with benefits and a $2.45 million payout.
“There are no answers to what happened at Michigan State. It was: ‘We’re gonna write a check, now go away and leave us alone,’” Klein said.
Michigan State spokesperson Emily Gerkin Guerrant refuted the notion that MSU has not been held accountable.
“We do feel the university has been accountable for its role in failing to protect so many from Nassar’s abuse,” she said in a statement to HuffPost, pointing to the large financial settlement and the university’s establishment of the Mental Health and Counseling Fund to support survivors.
“We have also worked over the past five years to greatly improve the policies and procedures at MSU that would prevent a similar tragedy from happening again,” she said. “Mandatory reporting policies, investigation procedures, internal employee reviews and accountability, patient chaperone policies and many others.”
Multiple survivors noted that the group of victims is still asking the university to release documents to fully understand how this happened. While MSU said it was willing to do a complete investigation, the board of trustees repeatedly shielded full disclosure by claiming attorney-client privilege on over 6,000 documents. Because of the school’s refusal to provide these documents, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced her hands are tied and she must end the investigation into MSU’s handling of the Nassar case.
“I find it unconscionable that the university would stonewall the very investigation it requested. Nonetheless, that is where we find ourselves,” Nessel said in a press conference. “MSU’s refusal to comply with my request will leave me with no choice but to close this investigation in a manner that provides no real closure or justice to the people who deserve it.”
Guerrant told HuffPost that an MSU board of trustee has read through all 6,000 documents maintained under attorney-client privilege and publicly stated there is no information in the documents related to the attorney general’s investigation.
“Yes, the MSU Board of Trustees is maintaining its legal right to maintain privilege on documents that reflect legal advice from counsel regarding the lawsuits filed against the university either by the survivors or the lawsuits MSU has filed against insurance carriers who have refused to honor previous policies,” she said. “But again, all facts related to the investigation have been provided to the AG.”
The reality is that while Nassar is in prison, the people who enabled him, who created a horribly abusive system, who were themselves horrible abusers … are still out there. Rachael Denhollander, first woman to publicly accuse Nassar
Somehow, MSU looks good when compared to USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in 2018 following Nassar’s case and has since been caught up in several lawsuits. Last year, it filed a reorganization plan that offered a lump sum of $217 million to survivors as a group. Many criticized the proposed amount, including Olympians Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, pointing out that the settlement would be divided among over 500 athletes and would preclude any future suits against USA Gymnastics and USOPC.
“We need to know who knew what, when, and how we can stop this from ever happening again,” Biles told Texas Monthly in March when asked about her views on an independent investigation into USA Gymnastics. “We need the enablers to be gone, because if they’re still in the system, or still working or profiting, we need them to be completely done.”
The entire board of directors at USA Gymnastics resigned in 2018 following pressure from the USOPC. The committee’s CEO, Scott Blackmun, resigned in 2018, and the USOPC fired its chief of sport performance, Alan Ashley, the same year after an independent report found that both failed to elevate concerns about Nassar’s conduct.
USA Gymnastics’ leadership has been overhauled multiple times after then-President Steve Penny was charged in 2018 with tampering with evidence in the Nassar case. Penny first learned of the accusations against Nassar in 2015, but did not alert authorities and instead hired an outside firm to investigate. By not alerting authorities, Penny allowed the USA Gymnastics program to continue running smoothly — and Nassar to continue abusing children — so the U.S. women’s gymnastics team could make it to the Rio Olympics in 2016. The team made history that year, winning nine medals including a second straight team gold.
Penny resigned in 2017 with a $1 million severance package following pressure from the USOPC to step down. Since then, the organization has cycled through four different people in the top position.
Some survivors say that the constant leadership changes show that the institution has not truly grappled with the abuse but instead continues to bury the truth.
“Just changing leadership isn’t going to do anything,” Teristi said. “Yes, that looks good on paper and the general public feels like changes have been made and things are better now. But the mindset that allowed John and Larry to happen is still there. It’s so much more deeply ingrained than just those at the top.”
There have been multiple investigations into USAG’s handling of the Nassar case, including two by congressional committees, but some survivors say the investigations didn’t go deep enough. Other investigations into USAG were commissioned by USOPC or USA Gymnastics themselves.
“We recognize how deeply we have broken the trust of our athletes and community, and are working hard to build that trust back,” Li Li Leung, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, said in a statement to HuffPost.
“Everything we do now is aimed at creating a safe, inclusive, and positive culture for everyone who participates in our sport,” Leung said. “And while we know that this kind of meaningful and lasting culture change does not happen overnight, we will keep working toward that goal until every member feels supported, included, safe and empowered.”
The California Supreme Court ruled last week that national sports governing bodies such as USA Gymnastics are responsible for protecting their athletes. The ruling, which was in relation to a complaint brought by three USA Taekwondo athletes, found that the USOPC could not be held liable for the abuse that those specific athletes experienced due to insufficient facts presented by attorneys. However, the court acknowledged that there are a variety of other scenarios where USOPC could be held liable, including sexual abuse at USOPC facilities or events like the Olympics.
The USOPC created the U.S. Center for SafeSport in 2017 to investigate claims of child abuse in sports in the wake of the Nassar scandal. While the gesture sounds good in theory, it has very little impact on the ground, survivors say. They described the organization as “useless” and “inadequate,” pointing out an obvious conflict of interest: An organization created by the USOPC could never independently and objectively investigate the USOPC.
Angela Povilaitis, the prosecutor in the Nassar case, said it’s baffling to watch USA Gymnastics and the USOPC continue to promise accountability with no real evidence of action.
“How many different presidents have they had? How many different tweets have there been? How many different statements that we stand with survivors, that we want to make change?” she said. “They say they want to make this sport safe, they want to find out what was known, and yet their actions just don’t support that.”
The real issue here, Povilaitis said, is that many of these organizations are ignoring reasonable pleas from survivors that have nothing to do with money, such as a thorough, independent investigation or an overhaul of the organization entirely.
“When you are litigating against survivors, what gets lost is that there are nonmonetary outcomes to litigation that are not being met that would have long and lasting impacts for future athletes and gymnasts,” she said.
When you are litigating against survivors, what gets lost is that there are nonmonetary outcomes to litigation that are not being met that would have long and lasting impacts for future athletes and gymnasts. Angela Povilaitis, prosecutor in Nassar case
The last element of institutional failure comes from one of the highest places in government: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI opened an investigation into Nassar in 2015 after three national gymnasts, including Biles and Raisman, reported sexual abuse, but no significant action was taken until over a year later. During that time, Nassar abused dozens more.
When Raisman asked why the FBI didn’t contact her until 15 months after her initial report, she said they told her, “We wanted to wait until the Olympics were over.”
The Justice Department has yet to release the FBI’s report on how it handled the case, despite pressure from hundreds of Nassar victims.
“The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General is investigating the allegations concerning the FBI’s handling of the Nassar investigation, and the victims and the public should rest assured our findings will be made public at the end of our investigation,” a spokesperson for the office told HuffPost.
The FBI declined to comment and referred HuffPost to the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General.
“What this signals is that the predators are going to continue to be safe because organizations are going to care more about their bottom line, more about their reputation than they’re going to care about the truth,” Denhollander said. “It’s a very safe place for predators still, and it’s an unsafe place for survivors.”
‘A Perpetual Battle For The Truth’
Fighting for the truth is not an easy job. It’s also not the only job for nearly all of these women. Most have children or families and regular 9-to-5 jobs that bring the everyday stressors we all face. None of them want to be labeled as victims of Nassar for the rest of their lives; they want to move on. But without a full accounting of what happened, how can they?
“It feels like we’re in a perpetual battle for the truth. And until you get the truth, it’s really hard to heal,” Klein said. “We want to get answers, close this chapter and move on.”
Mealy, the charge victim in Geddert’s case from Michigan, had gotten out of rehab just two days before Geddert’s suicide. She’s still learning how to confront and cope with a lot of the abuse she endured during nearly her entire childhood.
As for Teristi, the charge victim from North Carolina, she’s still grappling with how abruptly Geddert’s story ended. There was supposed to be a trial and possibly even a sentence hearing. It was supposed to be a day of reckoning for Teristi and other survivors.
“It was just a flash in the pan with the headline, ‘coach commits suicide after charges,’ and people are going to forget,” Teristi said. “But it hasn’t ended. It hasn’t been resolved. I really hope people don’t forget.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that the California Supreme Court ruled that umbrella organizations like the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee don’t have a legal responsibility to keep athletes safe, but they could be held liable in sexual abuse cases where the abuse took place at their facilities or events.
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